Dev Raj Dahal
Public awareness of foreign policy issues in Nepal has increased over the years. Media, civil society and intellectuals are socialising them about the historical forces of change and shaping contextual ideas to adapt to them. The nation’s search for an independent foreign policy is rooted in the tradition of its statecraft, legal strictures and geostrategic shift in the global balance of power. Nepali leaders have often projected its national identity and pursued its own destiny and goals. Nepalis vaunt its history of independence and mobilised resources and political will to retain “freedom, sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality, independence and dignity” as specified in its constitution.
The retention of these values requires the protection of its population, space, ecology and social, cultural, economic and political policies in a multipolar world and a wider policy gaze. The normative values of Panchasheel, non-alignment, principles of the UN, international laws and policies provide it a cognitive map for international conduct, legislative oversight to maintain social control and requirement of parliamentary ratification of treaties on matters of vital and strategic significance to ease the evolution of national consensus. Nepal’s foreign policy efficacy lies in clear perception of the world and conception of its diplomatic roles in it.
The globalised world has scaled up Nepali politics. Multi-scale solidarities of Nepalis transcend national sovereignty but also enervate the once convergence of the state, economy and citizenship in the national constellation. Nepal’s location in the security orbit of neighbours - India and China - sets the pivot of its strategic geography. The US mission of boosting QUAD, Indo-Pacific Strategy, AUKUS and India-US global strategic partnership has bounced back geopolitics to its old clichés such as rebalancing, containment, encirclement, alliances and deterrent against growing Chinese power and influence. This has shifted the location of great power competition for resources, markets and allies in Asia without underplaying a need for cooperation in the management of global public goods.
The hardening of competition in Afghanistan’s tangled geopolitics, China’s periphery, Himalayas, Indo-Pacific region and South China Sea bear implications for Nepal with open border with India and harmony of the Indian and the Western interest in Tibet. This shows that coercive force remains as ultima ratio of geopolitics. The surge of strategic partnership of Nepal may offer it a scope to revitalise the nation from the exhaustion of civil conflict, earthquake, pandemic and political instability. But it is also flushing leadership discomfiture over the slide of its age-old balance.
It also shows the impossibility to escape from the gravity of technology, power, finance, resources and external interests contesting social boundaries of national space. Geopolitics is power-centric, not based on universal rule of reason. In this sense, it is essential for Nepal to find a right policy choice for its spatial strategy, increase leverage in bargaining, creativity in diplomacy and stay out of the side-show of great game. The reasoning of political geography offers Nepali leadership strategic thought and ideas to cultivate national interests in the sphere of time, cost, effort and geostrategic change.
In the past, the reliance of Nepali leaders on external advice, aid, power and legitimacy for the regime had ascribed a buffer role for the nation. But as neighbours and super powers began to compete for their influence, it began to step out to nonalignment as a substitute for buffer, avoided being dragged into their conflict by self-distancing and even warded off their alliances favouring diversification of ties. The attributional affinity in “soft power,” such as democracy, education, law, human rights, cultural and religious linkages and development policies has, however, shaped its common strategic worldview with India and the West. On “hard power” too Nepal allowed the colonial legacy of recruiting Gurkhas in the Indian and the British Armies and signed arms assistance agreements until its leadership suddenly awakened to the rise of China as a power with global vision, outreach and initiatives.
Nepal has then signed strategic partnership, transport, communication and connectivity of economic corridors and aid and investment in energy with China. Collaboration on sister-cities has offered Nepal alternative diffusion of modernity. Out of its three-tiered diplomacy -- state to state, people to people and party to party --, the last one, however, suffered a setback as China misjudged the artificial unity of Nepali left parties and political culture of leadership. Alan K. Henrikson says, “The practical geopolitics occurs in foreign policy bureaucracy and political institutions” as distinct from popular geopolitics in the media that focus on rivalry of great powers and formal geopolitics commonly narrated in academia. The latter two are famous only for flair and flamboyance while the former lacked critical insight as a policy guide.
The Nepali state can become stable if its citizens find congruent to the values of the bounded space and democracy that transforms citizen-leadership ties into citizen-state ties, addresses resource curse and manages the coexistence of overlapping subcultures across national boundaries. Retaining Nepali state’s monopoly on power can bolster the connecting elements of society and reduce any geopolitical gravitation to external poles of power either for its labour market, brain drain, diaspora or opportunity for regime survival at national costs. A strong sense of national unity defined by rational opportunity for citizens to realise their rights and aspirations can make foreign policy robust.
Yet, Nepali leaders’ propensity to summon external powers for regime change has inserted externalities and bred multiple sources of advice and influence at various scales of its politics. It is diminishing the state’s hierarchy and increasing the potency of centrifugal forces. Nepal’s strategic position in the central Himalayan geopolitics and its independent foreign policy have been further diluted by instrumental politics of political parties -instrumentalising class, market, ethnicity, region and religion against the state, institutionalised conflicts along identity lines and weakened national identity.
Now Nepali state suffers from an imbalance between allocative efficiency and ongoing distributional struggle of social forces beyond constitutional choice of procedural justice and fair level of spatial distribution of public goods. Adoption of neo-liberal economic policies in Nepal has marked the victory of global kapitalpolitik over the nation’s agricultural, industrial and social capital. It has led to the processes of agricultural subsidy cut, de-industrialization and the rise of violent Maoist conflict. As the scale of Nepali conflicts expanded to global attention, the state could not keep a fair balance between the accumulation of financial capital, political legitimacy and public interest. The outcome is a drag in the configuration and transaction of politics between Kathmandu, periphery and urban-rural links. Conflict-induced security vacuum exposed the vulnerability of its frontiers to the foes of the state.
Nepal’s exercise of independent foreign policy rests on its leadership upholding national self-determination in politics, law making, public policy and self-governance drawing the consent of citizens. It can avoid external predators to disrupt national unity either by social engineering along fault lines or stoking proxies to act as centrifugal forces. As the scale of Nepali politics widened to broader audience and context, driven by ideology, economy, technology and civil society, it is exposed to the geo-strategies of opposing powers — India, Japan, the UK, Australia and the USA in one hand and China and Russia on the other influencing its inter-state and intra-societal relations. The nation from its founding days to now has eschewed its territory to be used for offensive politics. Yet it could not prevent internal power struggle in the geopolitical heartland, Kathmandu,
In this context, Nepalisation efforts either through language or socialisation of leaders through cultural industries are essential for civic identification with the state, not undue attachments to mini-identities.
It is important for building national consensus on foreign policy issues, supporting national integration and exerting control over security challenges. Sovereignty and territorial integrity excludes separatism and multi-nationalism but includes a tolerance to human rights, humanitarian laws and obligations as a member of the international community. Nepali concept of motherland and historical distribution of land to citizens formed organic unity to defend its lebensraum (living space) and socialisation in indigenous knowledge and wisdom of statecraft with natives accustomed to share common cause without being biased to the protection of asylum-seekers.
The great perils of Nepali foreign policy arise from signing high profile agreements with great powers but unable to implement them. The standoffs on India’s Act East Policy, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the US Millennium Challenge Corporation are glaring examples though the geostrategies are said to link to economic development. The other is reacting to events without knowing their consequence to mutual dependence with the potential to lock the nation into immobility. Nepal’s reaction to India-China agreement on trijunction of Lipulek claimed to be its territory is another example.
Still, the other is personalisation of foreign policy by partisan leaders preceding institutionalisation in Foreign Ministry and Nepali embassies and missions abroad and policy debate with the public at home which have often provoked nationalistic reactions in favour of public diplomacy and transparency. As the world system is now passing through challenges from rising powers of Asia such as China, India, Japan and Russia, and declining power of the Atlantic and the surge of new alliance patterns, Nepal’s foreign policy is now sprawling, not riveted. Once diversification of dependence helped it to keep autonomy but it is bearing the brunt of great powers’ direct influence on its domestic politics. Independent foreign policy can only be fostered and institutionalised if statehood is fully consolidated, leadership knows where the national interest lies, acquires support from educated and informed citizenry.
When geopolitical polarisation has cramped rule-based regional and international cooperation, community building remains a frustrated vision. In historic times, Nepal exercised caution, without confining itself to locational determinism. Now it applies many diplomatic tools - quiet diplomacy, niche diplomacy, conference diplomacy on law of the sea, the UN General Assembly and climate summit, diplomacy of banding together with small, landlocked, least developed and mountainous nations. Likewise, it is acting in concert as a pressure group, multilateral negotiation in the SAARC, BBIN, BIMSTEC, etc. to foster regional cooperation diplomacy, value-entrepreneur diplomacy through the organization of peace summits in Lumbini, diplomacy of international acceptability and creditworthiness through engagement in peace keeping operations.
Nepal’s election as a non-permanent member of UN Security Council twice offered it symbolic rewards. Many international platforms including Boao Forum for Asia provided Nepal the notion of equality of status. In this context, cautiously walking a tightrope can be considered a great feat for Nepal at a time of shift in the global balance of power and Sino-Indian geostrategic competition. Acquiring leverage for diversification Nepal needs to follow a policy of incrementalism, not expediency and crisis-coping by prevailing shared interests over the separate ones. The application of scholarship to statecraft helps leaders to avoid pitfalls in conducting independent foreign policy.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues.)
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